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The Use Of Heritage In Everyday Use English Literature Essay

Heritage is defined as something that is or can be inherited; such as in culture, tradition, or it can be something of importance handed down. Walker uses the quilts to represent the “creative legacy that African Americans have inherited from their maternal ancestor” and show the “value of the quilt in the Afro-American experience” (Whitsitt). In Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use”, characterization of a mother and her daughters and the symbolism of the everyday use of a quilt are used to reveal the importance of heritage.

Dee shows that she does not value heritage by changing her name to Wangero. She adopts an African name “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” and rejects her identity (Walker111). She tells her mother that the name Dee is dead and that she “couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (Walker 111). When Dee does speak of her changed name—“it’s as if there is not even a tombstone to make the presence of her absence and it is as if her return seems less a return …she appears a curious visitor who has momentarily stopped off a road which began and ends elsewhere” (Whitsitt). Through heritage, her name was chosen after her aunt and Grandma Dee. Although, her mother tries to explain how she got her name, she felt like it was not important at all. Even when her husband replies, “Well, there you are”, Dee then snickers off in a not so polite tone, “There I was not, before ‘Dicie’ cropped in our family, so why should I try to trace it that far back?” (Walker 111). Dee is shown as “shallow, condescending, and manipulative, and concerned with style, fashion, and aesthetics, and lacks a true understanding of her heritage” (Farrell 179). So, Dee really does not care how far back her name can be traced into or how long it can be traced. “Mama thinks she could trace the name Dee in their family, as far back beyond the Civil War”, but Dee fails to see how far back that she can trace her name (Cowart). In times still today, children born have names that are after family members in the past into generations to come. The reason is because of past tradition and history.

Maggie is the youngest daughter who lives at home with her mother and enjoys her lifestyle. She is a simple girl who lives a content life and shares the daily chores with her mama. In the near future she will marry a local man names John Thomas. She does know how to read but not as good as Dee.  Although, she is “homely and ashamed of [her] burn scars down her arms and legs”, so we conclude that when the other house burned down that Maggie must have gotten burned by the fire and now has scars on her body(Walker 109). Mama sees Maggie as a “lame animal” that walks “chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle”; this is due to her low self-esteem (Walker 109). As Grueser says Maggie is “one [who] accepts the hand that fate has dealt her and attempts to flee any situation posing a potential threat” (Gruesser). When Dee gets upset about the quilt and Mama having already made a decision to give the quilt to Maggie for “everyday use”, Dee says, “she can always make some more, Maggie knows how to quilt” (Walker 113). Maggie stays with her mother and is taught to quilt by her Grandma Dee and Big Dee. This was passed down to her as a tradition of her family heritage. By Maggie putting the quilts to “everyday use”, she is honoring her heritage in everyday life. Maggie can see when Dee is very upset she finally says, “She can have them, Mama, I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (Walker 113). Maggie is willing to give the quilts to her sister because she will always remember her family history and heritage as she is a part of it. Maggie wants to maintain a lasting connection with her heritage and will pass it on into generations to come.

Mama Johnson is an uneducated, “large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” (Walker 109). In the story, Mama Johnson has not lived an easy life and describes how she works like a man. She feels “trapped and ignorant” as she cannot read because “her school was closed and she had completed on the second grade” (Farrell 181). She really never found out why the school was closed and was unable to finish school because “in 1927 colored asked fewer questions”(Walker 110). She also loves and respects her heritage and ancestors from the past. She is a spiritual woman that goes to church and sing church songs. In the story, she has to make a decision about the quilts and which daughter would appreciate them more. So, she realizes that it is Maggie who would put them into everyday use. By Mama seeing the value in Maggie, she also sees the value in herself.

In the short story, the main symbol of heritage is the quilt that is made from different members of the family and different tokens of material were used to piece the quilt itself. The quilt had been “pieced by Grandma Dee…In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War” (Walker 112). These quilts had a piece of history from past family members that was part of their heritage. Dee and Maggie may be total opposites of style and self but the whole fact is that Maggie knows more about family heritage and would appreciate the quilts and use them in everyday life. Maggie was a homely person and learned how to quilt, whereas Dee left home and started a new life with not wanting any part of her heritage. “Dee views her heritage as an artifact which she can possess and appreciate” the quilts more by hanging them on the wall (Piedmont-Marton). “The simplicity of Maggie and along with her allegiance to her specific family identity and her heritage shows her true understanding of where she came from” (Farrell 179). The quilts in Mama’s house had been placed in reserve because they held a certain value and that Mama had promised them to Maggie for when she gets married.

The quilt is a true symbol of heritage because of the remarkable way it was used in this story. The importance of the heritage is shown by Maggie and Mama, who may be uneducated, understand the true meaning of family heritage. Maggie’s concept of her heritage is personal, she learned how to quilt from her grandmother and she has an important connection in making the quilts a piece of her heritage and the quilts mean a lot to her because of the people they represent. Whereas, Dee had an education and the sophistication of living in the world that the true meaning of family heritage is not understood. Dee wants to hang the quilts on the wall because she appreciates the hand-stitching that was done on the quilts. Dee does not have a personal connection with the quilts. As the title suggests, it is not the quilt itself, but it is Mama Johnson’s mother’s quilt and it needs careful handling of everyday life. The story shows a lot of items that were part of Mama’s history and put into “everyday use”. The benches at the everyday table were made by Dee’s daddy because they “couldn’t afford to buy chairs” (Walker 112). Also, the dasher from the churn was made from “a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived” (Walker 112). The story shows how practical, everyday things can be used in everyday use and reveals the importance of heritage. “Quilts are beautiful and merit preservation (Cowart). The quilts can be an “intertextual tradition, a passing of values…through skills and can be valued as art but it would be useless “if something intended for “everyday use” ends up framed, on the wall, on a shelf, in a library or museum” (Cowart).

Working Bibliography

Cowart, David. “Heritage and deracination in Walker’s “Everyday Use.” Studies in Short Fiction 33.2 (1996): 171. Print.

Farrell, Susan. “Flight vs. Flight: A Re-evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” Studies in Short Fiction 35 (1998): 179-186.

Gruesser, John. “Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” Explicator 61.3 (2003): 183-185. Print.

Piedmont-Marton, Elisabeth. “An overview of “Everyday Use”.” Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Print.

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. 9th ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2009.

Whitsitt, Sam. “In Spite of It All: A Reading of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” African American Review 34.3 (2000): 443-459. Print.

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